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Hicks v. State - 1975-NMSC-056, 88 N.M. 588, 544 P.2d 1153

Rule:

Common law sovereign immunity may no longer be interposed as a defense by the state, or any of its political subdivisions, in tort actions.

Facts:

Plaintiff Ron E. Hicks filed an action in New Mexico state court seeking to recover damages for the death of his wife and child in an accident involving the collision of a school bus and a cattle truck on a narrow bridge that was constructed and maintained by defendant State Highway Department ("Department"). Hicks claimed the accident was the result of negligence by the State, the Department and other State officials and agencies. The Stated filed a motion to dismiss on the ground that the wrongful death action was barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. The trial court granted the motion, finding that the doctrine of sovereign immunity was a long-standing common law principle that could only be changed by legislative action. Hicks appealed.

Issue:

Was the State immune from Hicks' wrongful death action?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court reversed the trial court's order granting the State's motion to dismiss and remanded the wrongful death action to the trial court. The court ruled that sovereign immunity was always a judicial creation without statutory codification and could be abolished by judicial action. The original justification for sovereign immunity that the sovereign could do no wrong was no longer valid and the possibility of an intolerable financial burden on the state was eliminated with insurance. There were no conditions in the State that rationally supported the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Th court pronounced that common law sovereign immunity could no longer be interposed as a defense by the State, or any of its political subdivisions, in tort actions.

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